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On Indo-US ties

India needs to do its share of heavy-lifting too.

News trickled in yesterday that New Delhi shorlisted two European fighter aircraft — Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon as prospective candidates for the highly publicized $10 billion Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRA) competition.  My Takshashila colleagues Nitin Pai and Dhruva Jaishankar have two excellent posts on India’s MMCRA decision.  Significantly, this decision meant the downlisting of two American firms competing for the MMRCA contract — Boeing’s F/A-18 and Lockheed’s F-16.

It is not everyday that countries sign $10 billion contracts for fighter aircraft.  The sheer scale, value and nature of the MMRCA competition meant that geo-strategic considerations ought to have outweighed purely technical determinants.  And while very valid concerns about U.S. fine-print have been raised, India has faced similar difficulties with less transparent suppliers, and that too, after signing substantial contracts (lest we forget the small matter about us having to pay $3 billion for an antiquated ship that we were initially supposed to receive for free).  The truth is that India’s severely shackled defense industry necessitates entering into contracts for arms and equipment with foreign suppliers under conditions not entirely ideal.  But deriving benefits from domestic defense industry liberalization — if and when this happens — will take several years.  How does India fulfill its defense requirements in the interim?

U.S. ambassador to India Timothy Roemer was quoted as saying that he was “deeply disappointed” with the outcome.   The downlisting of Boeing and Lockheed is but the latest evidence of ties between the world’s two largest democracies being somewhat adrift after Mr. Obama’s visit to India last year.

The civil nuclear deal between India and the U.S. was meant to be the cornerstone of a new age of Indo-U.S. ties, leaving behind decades of mutual mistrust, lecturing and moral posturing.  The deal offered benefits to both India and the U.S. — for India, it meant international recognition as a de facto nuclear power, and for the U.S. it meant nuclear commerce with an emerging economy. It took the U.S. exercising its political clout to see that a waver based on Indian exceptionalism was granted at the NSG, which also required a last-minute call by George W. Bush to Hu Jintao to prevent China from stonewalling the vote.

However, today, U.S. firms are effectively non-participants in nuclear trade with India because of supplier liability imposed by India’s Nuclear Liability Bill.  Globally, suppliers are unable to obtain insurance coverage for nuclear trade.  Both Russian and French firms compete in India’ s nuclear market because they are essentially underwritten by their respective governments.  And even then, the Russians have apparently made it clear to New Delhi that nuclear commerce with India is unsustainable in the long run under such circumstances.

Today India aspires for a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council; but reforming the UNSC remains a distant dream. Even so, during Mr. Obama’s visit last year, India joined a select group of nations whose candidature the U.S. endorses.  In its current stint as a non-permanent member of the UNSC, India must make its voice heard and break from a tradition that encourages prevarication and moral posturing.  As I pointed out in a previous blogpost, it’s no use saying India deserves a permanent seat at the UNSC because it represents 1/6th of humanity, if that 1/6th of humanity seldom expresses an opinion.

Undoubtedly, there are bound to be differences in opinion between India and the U.S.  Indeed, it is easy to focus on contentious areas (and there are several) — David Headley, climate change, Pakistan, Iran,  Burma, to name a few.  We need not agree on every aspect of global affairs, but as two large and pluralistic democracies, we share common values and interests, and ought to build our relationship on these shared ideals.  And while it is important not to put undue focus on transactional aspects of our strategic partnership with the U.S., the MMRCA deal will have an impact on the trajectory of this relationship.  And this we knew well before a decision on the shortlist was made.  Indeed, Ambassador Roemer’s resignation hours after India’s announcement of the MMRCA shortlist is probably not a coincidence.

It is certainly conceivable that some of the momentum towards expanding this partnership will be tempered.  Worse, when considered alongside the Nuclear Liability Bill, U.S. companies might soon conclude that the attractiveness of the Indian market is significantly less than the bandwidth they dedicate to it.  After all, interest in India cannot be sustained merely by the “promise” of the Indian market, if none of those promises are materialized.  We have always been eager to deliver our litany of demands to the U.S. — from Afghanistan, to pressuring Pakistan on terror.  But how much are we willing to give in return?  We need to ask ourselves if India is doing its share of the heavy-lifting in  this bilateral relationship.

 

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Phasing out India’s MiGs

Who’s in charge of holding the Defense Minister accountable?

Addressing members of the Rajya Sabha, AK Antony claimed that the process to phase out India’s MiGs would begin in 2014 and would be complete by 2017:

“We have got a clear-cut plan to replace them. By 2017, the entire MiG series will be replaced in a phased manner, that is from 2014 onwards,” said defence minister A K Antony in Rajya Sabha on Wednesday.

In the years ahead, India’s frontline combat fighters will have 270 Russian Sukhoi-30MKIs already being inducted for around $12 billion, the 126 new medium multi-role combat aircraft to be acquired in the $10.4 billion MMRCA project and the 250 to 300 fifth-generation fighter aircraft to be built with Russia in the gigantic $35 billion project.

Antony, on his part, assured Parliament that large-scale induction of Sukhoi-30MKIs, LCA and MMRCA would take place within the next few years, while acknowledging such an exercise could not take place in the past due to “historical reasons”. [The Times of India]

The perceptive among us no doubt realize that 2014 is three years — or 36 months — away.  Mr. Antony is claiming that within the next 36 months, he will begin phasing-out IAF’s aging MiG’s with 126 combat aircraft from an as-yet-undetermined vendor.  Even if we are to believe that the MMRCA deal will be concluded this year, there is no reason to suggest that the process from agreement-to-induction can be accomplished within the span of 3 years.

Mr. Antony also expects the IAF to begin replacing MiG-21s with Tejas LCAs (conceptualized 30 years ago) by the end of 2013. The fact that the indigenously developed Kaveri engine expected to power Tejas has been a disaster, and is, by his own admission, still “under development” (after 20 years) hasn’t damned his spirits apparently.

Even if we are to go by Mr. Antony’s word, the most optimistic assessments put an FGFA induction to the latter-half of 2017.  It is far from clear what HAL’s role will be in the development of the Indian version of the FGFA (and indeed, whether or not this will actually be the joint-development project with Sukhoi that India seems to portraying it to be), suffice to say that discussions are at a very early stage and inordinate delays are only to be expected, given our history of defense acquisitions from Russia. (Indeed, delivery and cost overruns of our previous big-ticket deal with Sukhoi were the subject of comment in a CAG audit report issued in 2000).

Given these facts, the answers provided by the Defense Minister did not strike anyone — not our MPs, and certainly not Mr. Antony himself — as odd and unrealistic.  Not one question on the answers provided by Mr. Antony was raised.  After all, in accordance with tradition in India, we do not interrogate our leaders.

So much for accountability.

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India’s do-nothing culture

What is the Defense Minister defending?

Defense Minister AK Antony presented the following in response to a question in the Rajya Sabha about abandoned IAF airfields:

There are 29 abandoned airfields of the Indian Air Force (IAF) spread across eleven states in the country. Review of abandoned airfields for revival is a continuous, ongoing process and is based on the operational assessment / requirement of the IAF.

No funds have been allocated nor utilized during 2008-09 and 2009-10 for maintenance and revival of abandoned airfields. [PIB]

Twenty-nine abandoned airfields is a telling statistic and is a reflection of the deeper malaise affecting the armed forces.  But what more could be expected when the IAF is operating 8.5 squadrons below its sanctioned strength of 39 squadrons? And what good are aircraft anyway, when there is a shortage of about 400 pilots in the IAF.  Such staggering levels of non-performance would have led to summary dismissals in the corporate world; but not in government.  Because, after all, AK Antony is an honorable man.

Two weeks before 26/11, MoD announced ambitious plans to modernize 39 IAF airfields across the country.  Two years on, that project has been stalled by MoD’s Vigilance Department. On grounds of “unfair practices” in the bidding process.  After all, the raksha mantri is an honorable man.

To address the need to replace aging aircraft and plug shortages, IAF projected a requirement for 126 multi-role combat aircraft in 2001 — which eventually led to the Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender — worth $10 billion, attracting tenders from six international aerospace corporations.  Nine years on, and a year and a half into conducting trials of the combat aircraft, MoD failed to arrive at a decision by the deadline that it stipulated and has since asked manufacturers to resubmit offers for an additional year.  Because the Defense Minister is trying to assure a “squeaky clean” image in the decision making process.

This begs the question: what is the Defense Minister defending? India’s territorial integrity or his image in the history books?  UPA 2.0 has bred a noxious culture that punishes errors of commission but not errors of omission.  Indeed, not doing anything at all if there is the slightest possibility of questions being raised is keenly encouraged.

Meanwhile, IAF still operates 400 MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft that were obsolete two decades ago, a significant number of its airfields lie in rot, it is several squadron short of the minimum number of front-line combat aircraft required to secure the country, and in any case, hasn’t recruited or trained enough pilots, even if those 126 combat aircraft were hypothetically ready to be inducted tomorrow. Is there a Defense Minister who would do his country’s bidding?

UPA 2.0 is replete with honorable men.  So are they all; all honorable men.

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The Kabul Park Residence attacks

India’s short term option — don’t flinch.

Today, six Indians died in suicide attacks perpetrated by the Taliban at the Park Residence and other guesthouses in Kabul, Afghanistan.  This included Indian consulate staff, an ITBP constable and two Indian army officers.  At least five other individuals were injured in the attack, including five Indian army officers.

This blog, along with others, has in the past articulated what India must do in Afghanistan to protect its national interests.  In the August 2008 edition of Pragati, Sushant K Singh argued in favor of a larger Indian military presence in Afghanistan and warned of the long term consequences were India to rely exclusively on “soft power.”  In January 2010’s Pragati, I put forth a case for India to train the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), thereby assisting in raising a credible unit to act as a bulwark against the Taliban and Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex.  Commentators like Harsh Pant have opined that India must stop hedging its bets on the US and must work with other actors like Russia and Iran to engage all sections of Afghan society.

However, despite repeated attacks against Indians and Indian interests in Afghanistan, Manmohan Singh’s government appears disinclined to readjust its Afghanistan strategy.  Today’s attack will not likely force a rethink on how to engage with Afghanistan either.  Given India’s self-imposed shackles and the likelihood of continued attacks against Indian soft targets in the war ravaged nation, India has but one option at its disposal in the short term, and that is to not flinch.

Attacks such as these may lead to calls for India’s level of engagement in Afghanistan to be reconsidered.  However, downgrading Indian presence in Afghanistan is the surest way to convey to the military jihadi complex (MJC) that it can force Indian action through terror.  The MJC feels that it is at an advantageous position:  it has outlasted the Americans,  reinserted itself (and the Taliban) into Afghanistan’s political space and the top leadership of the Quetta Shura — despite the capture of Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mohammed Younis — remains mostly intact. The MJC will enjoy a tremendous psychological boost from the notion that it forced the Americans and the Indians to withdraw from Afghanistan.  It will seek to replicate the model by imposing severe costs on India in Kashmir and the mainland.

It is wrong to suppose that India’s involvement in Afghanistan is merely about power projection and easy access to energy rich Central Asia.  India is facing an existential battle and denying the MJC “strategic depth” in Afghanistan is a critical component to India’s own internal security. Therefore, if India insists in not altering its ill-conceived stance vis-a-vis hard power in Afghanistan, it must at the very least maintain its investment profile in the country, while fully expecting to be targeted repeatedly and frequently by the MJC.  Only the Indian government can explain how this is a better alternative to the introduction of Indian hard power in Afghanistan.

It is significant that India’s reconstruction efforts have earned it tremendous goodwill in Afghanistan.  An opinion poll () conducted in Afghanistan in January 2010 by BBC/ABC/ARD indicated a 71% favorable view of India, as opposed to 15% favorable view of Pakistan.  In the meduim- to long run, India must work with the US, regional actors and Afghans across the political gamut and ensure that an effective and credible counterweight to the MJC and the Taliban is sustained in Afghanistan.

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